Feed the Birds

Feed the Birds mom in meadow

 

My 85 year old mother is staying with me. Her two month visit has been extended to four months, owing in part to health challenges. Her cognition is erratic. Porpoising. Sometimes up and sometimes diving down.

 

During this volatile period, I’ve found myself without guideposts or markers. I wake up not knowing what to expect.  One day last week I couldn’t locate Mom. After searching the house and the neighborhood, I found her in the guest apartment, hiding from a nightmare.

 

The next day she cheerfully announced she needed a daily chore list. I complied. Sweep the driveway. Empty the dishwasher. Brush the dog. Refill the bird bath. Water the plants. Now she gets up and goes to her chores. She is much happier.

 

In this time of unknowing I’m finally driven to practice some of the mindfulness stances I’ve read about for years: be open, stay awake, connect, be present, surrender.

 

The most helpful practices are totally ordinary.  We watch classic movies (Mary Poppins last night) read Dave Barry columns aloud, walk, cook, do chores, and feed birds.  These are my main spiritual practices now. They’re teaching me gratitude, acceptance and trust– trust in the present moment. That it is enough.

 

Another kind of practices are teaching me about surrender.. These include paying attention to blood pressure and medications.  And encouraging reminiscences, which take a lot of time. And letting go of what I thought I had to be doing, my routine ways of working and being which feel less pressing now.

 

We have only a month left together before she returns to the East Coast. A month to watch the birds, to write down every one we see.  A month to marvel at the splashing and chirping, the beads of water glinting in tiny beaks, the drops rainbowing from ordinary brown wings.

 

robin note


 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by admin in family, personal reflection, spirituality, 0 comments

After the Fall

joan xray 2Conscience makes cowards of us all, the Bard observed. And after a fall and consequent wrist surgery and three days of hospitalization, I would add that that pain makes cowards of us too.

There was a point when a chasm opened, and I was a helpless crawling worm. Forget all my noble Buddhist thoughts about the difference between pain and suffering. Forget my prayers, my devotion to the 23rd Psalm, yogic breathing, meditation or mindfulness.  There was nothing I could do or think or imagine. No self to ravel up the loosening parts. No one home.

Except there was. My husband. Who came with tea and the next dose of pain meds.

We do need each other. Absolutely. Undeniably.

In my fitful meanderings yesterday I looked up the origins of the phrase “apple of your eye”. This mysterious phrase first appears in Hebrew Scripture, including a description of God’s care for Jacob. “He found him in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste. He encircled him, cared for him, guarded him as the apple of his eye.”

Apparently this phrase was also translated as little man of the eye– the reflection of yourself that you see in another’s pupil if you are gazing deeply into each other’s eyes. I’m still pondering the depth and wonder of this metaphor of relationship. A sacramental image of intimate knowing.

Last night in a dream I was instructed to start writing. So I have. With one finger of my left hand.

I think there will be many more reflections to come.


 

Posted by admin in personal reflection, religion, spirituality, 2 comments

Tying A Rope To The Barn

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In the Mid West, every winter farmers used to tie a rope from their back door to their barn. During blizzards, when there were no landmarks, no paths, no visibility, and no sound except the roar and howl of the storm, they clutched the rope to make their way out to the barn to feed their horses. Then they followed that lifeline back home.

 

I learned about the winter ropes from Parker Palmer whose wonderful book, A Hidden Wholeness, describes various practices for engaging the storms of life.

 

It’s been a stormy week. On Wednesday, as I was hefting a pot of chili off the stove to bring to a soup supper and concert, my phone buzzed. The county emergency services department had issued a flash flood advisory.  We were cautioned to avoid travel.

 

Should I go out or should I stay home? On one hand, it would have been wonderful to sink into an armchair, toss a log onto the fire, and start reading the mystery that had just arrived in the mail. And I had a perfect excuse!  My phone had buzzed. The county had spoken. I felt like a kid who’d gotten a note from my parents excusing an absence.

 

On the other hand, I’d signed up to bring soup. People were going to show up hungry, expecting supper. I wasn’t the only soup provider, but what if the other cooks stayed home too? Additionally, what about the local high school chamber choir, all 32 of them and their teacher. What if no one showed up for their Christmas concert?

 

The county-wide flash flood advisory did not really apply to my situation. Honestly, I knew that.  The warnings pertained to steeper areas that had lost vegetation because of wildfires.  Those areas were in danger of flash floods. My route was not. I could drive safely to church, on well paved back roads.

 

Reluctantly, I shrugged into my rain coat, hauled my pot of chili out into the storm, and drove slowly, watching for deep puddles.

 

To my surprise, the church basement was full. Everyone who’d signed up to make soup was there. And the salad and the bread makers showed up too.  We had so much food the parents of the chamber singers could eat too.

 

After dinner we marched up the back stairs and packed into the pews.  The young singers were brilliant, glowing, accomplished. For more than 20 years they’ve consistently won gold medals at national competitions, largely due to their teacher’s dedication and vision.  Every one of the singers was there.

 

My take away is not that it is good to ignore travel advisories. Rather, my take away is that it is good to hold myself accountable, to exercise independent judgment and to take calculated risks.

 

The rain this week was a low-risk opportunity to test my rope.  Connection and community led me out into the storm. Soup, song and gratitude nourished me on the way home.

 


 

 

Delacroix, Wild Horse in A Storm, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Legros, Man Watering A Horse, courtesy of National Gallery of Art

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What We Need Is Here

Breughel The Entry of the Animals into the Ark Getty

 

Happy Thanksgiving! May you feast abundantly–nourishing body, soul, mind and heart. We’ve often used the Wendell Berry poem below as a blessing when we gathered at the table.

 

What We Need Is Here

 

Geese appear high over us,

pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,

as in love or sleep, holds

them to their way, clear

in the ancient faith: what we need

is here. And we pray, not

for new earth or new heaven, but to be

quiet in heart, and in eye,

clear. What we need is here.

 

Wendell Berry


 

Posted by admin in holidays, 1 comment

Making Bricks in Guangdong Province

The patient and kind brickmaker taught every student how to make a brick.

Imagine standing in a waist-deep hole, muscling red clay into wooden forms to make bricks. That’s what the brickmaker in Guangdong Province was doing, in 90 degree heat, with 90% humidity, when we swooped in upon him, all ten of us in our bright-red t-shirts, Americans cycling around rural China.

 

Of the dozens of Chinese people we talked to perhaps the brickmaker moved me the most.  He beamed when we descended upon him. Snow, our twenty-six year old translator, explained that the students had come from America to learn about China and would like to speak to him.

 

He has been making bricks since he was 12, he told us. He is now 44. He does not own the clay pit; his job is to make 1,000 bricks a day.  He works 364 days a year, with time off for the Spring Festival.

 

These facts, on their face, appall. Yet the man contravened the facts.

 

He was dressed in a clean, attractive polo shirt and a gingham work apron. His bricks were stacked with an engineer’s precision, in perfectly straight, uniform rows. And he welcomed us with bright eyes and enthusiastic delight.

 

He invited each student to step down into the clay pit and taught them how to make bricks.  Sweep some red clay out from under the plastic tarp. Roll and shape it into a loaf-shaped bundle. Drop it into the wooden form and firmly press it into place. There must be no air bubbles, no unevenness.  As he demonstrated, the muscles on his ropey forearms stood out like gnarled tree roots.

 

He has a child, a fourteen year old daughter. She was at school, he told us proudly.

 

As the brickmaker worked with each student, the adult chaperones conferred on the sidelines. We were taking so much of his time! This generous man, so patient with our students, so calmly instructing them in his craft, what could we do for him? He had 1,000 bricks to make that day!

 

After he had spent almost an hour with us, we heartily thanked him and almost apologetically offered him some yuan, probably amounting to about $10.

 

He would not accept our money. It had been his pleasure to teach the American children how to make bricks.  But, he sheepishly said, he had never seen American money. Did we have a small bill?

 

We gave him $1. He studied it. He would show his family, he said. This was a treasure. He would keep it forever to remember the day the Americans visited him.

 

Fortunately, I also had some small gifts in my backpack, including a pencil case with a dozen new yellow pencils and an eraser and sharpener. “For your daughter,” I said, opening the case and showing him the contents before handing it to him. His eyes widened. He held the case in both hands, grinning.

 

“Thank you. Thank you,” we exclaimed. “Xie. Xie.” Waving, we headed back to our bicycles. Our next stop was the village school, where perhaps we encountered his daughter, one of hundreds of earnest children in aqua blue and white uniforms, studying as if their lives depended on it.


 

 

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Posted by admin in Inspiration, travel, work, 2 comments

Heaven on Earth

threestudiesofwomenbloemart1620gettyA few hours ago I was in a slightly dark, slightly musty living room, with two old sofas lining the walls and a wobbly rocking chair bridging the gap. It felt like heaven on earth.

 

Of the five women there, two had just come from jail. One said it was the best thing that had ever happened to her. As a matter of fact, she had been on her knees, in a graveyard, praying to a statue of Jesus, telling Him she was at the very end of her rope and didn’t know what to do, when she had been picked up by the police, which had led to her 40 days of incarceration.  She beamed as she told this story, tossing her long, shining hair like a horse’s mane. She added that years ago she had been given the name Clear Soul at a pow wow, which was how she was feeling, now she was clean.

 

The other stories were equally powerful, though not as dramatic. One of the women had a three year old daughter with her in the house, and the women took turns caring for her. She had become the house darling, the substitute child on whom they could pour their pent up maternal affections. All the other women were distanced from their children, either by court order, chaotic circumstances, or the consequences of addiction.

 

I go to this house, or its sister house, every week for a group called Narratives in Recovery. I tell a folk tale and invite the women to find connections that are pertinent for their lives. Yesterday I told the story of a Japanese sun goddess who is driven into hiding, depriving the world of light. As she finds her way back into the world, she sees her reflection for the first time and realizes her beauty. This is a story with obvious parallels for women who are working hard on recovery.  And they latched on to it with enthusiasm.  The universal story of darkness to light.

 

I end this session with a mirror exercise where each woman listens as the others reflect to her what they see as her true beauty, her highest and best self. I take notes, scribing the comments into a mirror form, entitled My True Self.  Finally I read all the mirrors aloud, inviting the women to reflect on what it felt like to hear these words spoken, twice, about their inner beauty. It is always a moving and powerful experience.

 

Yesterday, however, after the exercise, the women insisted on doing a mirror for me.  “It’s time to close,” I demurred. “No!” they shouted. “We want to do your mirror.”

 

I had to practice what I had been preaching. Be open. Breathe. This is a safe place, with trustworthy people.  Listen deeply. Trust what you hear. Practice believing this is true about you.

 

It was revelatory. It was beautiful. I was seen and cherished by women who had endured more pain in a day than I had in a lifetime, and they were so generous, so capable of seeing into my heart, of witnessing my essence. All this, though they knew no details about my personal history or current life.

 

It was paradise. To move beyond external facts and divisions and simply witness the truth of each others’ being.


 

 

The image above is Three studies of women, Bloemart, 1620, courtesy of the Getty Museum

 

PS  Also, dear friends and readers, in a few hours I’m departing for rural China where I’ll be chaperoning my nephew’s eighth grade class as we bicycle through southern villages. I’ll be on an electronic fast, so it will be a while before my next post, but I’ll be journaling, and I’m sure there’ll be at least one blog post that chronicles the adventure.

 

 

Posted by admin in Inspiration, spirituality, 7 comments

A Reverence Humming Within

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Many years ago a Rolling Stone interviewer asked Jane Fonda why she had taken up Christianity. “I feel a presence, a reverence humming within me, that was, and is, difficult to articulate,” she answered.

 

I’ve felt that reverence myself lately, in the presence of dear friends struggling with catastrophic health challenges. Gail has had nine strokes in the last year. Previously she was brilliant, accomplished, generous, kind, a completely marvelous person and friend. Now she fights to find words. Fights to get up from the recliner, knowing that her ability to remain at home, rather than a nursing home, depends on being able to get up. Depends on her knees being able to bend, her thighs to lift, her hands to grasp the walker.

 

And her husband Ben, previously a somewhat pre-occupied business executive, while still working heroically to keep them afloat financially, puts everything else aside to care for his wife.

 

In the midst of this sorrow, I feel a reverence humming within. A pulsing wonder. That Ben is so tenderly loving. So calmly sacrificial. That the words Gail most often says are “Thank you.”

 

To suffer—and to choose love.

To suffer—and to choose gratitude.

To suffer—and to continue to choose life.

 

What well does this goodness spring from?

 

When I’m with them, I get to taste and see, privileged to witness beauty rising from devastation, new life emerging from ashes.

 


 

 

Photo above is Gail’s drawing, entitled Yeah, which she made with stamps and markers on October 8, 2014 at her home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by admin in friendship, Inspiration, spirituality, 0 comments

Accepting the Invitation

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I’m in training. I go to the gym twice a week for spin classes. Previously I was afraid of spinning; I thought it was for hardcore young gym enthusiasts.

 

But I’m spinning because my nephew invited me to chaperone his class trip, which involves riding a bike thirty miles a day. And I don’t even own a bike.

 

So I’m spinning. And feeling stronger.

 

This morning I’m thinking of other invitations and the doorways they’ve opened in my life, notably the invitation from my high school French teacher to visit her in Montreal. That trip was the first time I’d been out of Massachusetts, let alone out of the country.

 

As she and I walked across the campus of McGill University I thought, “I want to go to school here!” and lo and behold, I did. Accepting her invitation blossomed into a life path with countless more invitations and opportunities. Thank you Mrs. Root. (An apt name for a French and Latin teacher!)

 

Recently I’ve been invited into an experience of darkness, mostly through scary dreams, magnified by lingering smoke from the nearby King Fire and daily news of world tragedies. I’ve been trying to view this inner darkness as an invitation to growth and new life.

 

And in fact, by wrangling through nightmares and acknowledging my sadness, I’ve come to new insights and new freedom. The darkness is lifting in the very act of dialoguing with it. This is shadow work, a kind of inner wrestling advocated by Carl Jung.

 

Jung thought midlife posed a great challenge: keep going with worn-down old patterns or face one’s shadow—that unknown inner territory of unlived dreams, rejected ways of being, wounds and vulnerabilities. Ninety percent of the shadow is golden, Jung said, a treasure trove of potential energy necessary for vibrant later life.

 

Diving into my shadow I’ve re-discovered the enthusiasm of the young adventurer I thought I’d left behind. I’ve re-discovered the powerful dreamer (and needed to come to terms with all the dreams that weren’t fulfilled).

 

And last night, as I leaned over the handlebars of the stationary bike, with the instructor urging, Go! Go! Go!” I heard an inner voice well up. “You are strong,” it said.

 

I’d never heard this voice before.

 

With legs aching, I pedaled on, proud to be amongst the spinners.

 

Leon Bonnat, Jacob Wrestling With Angel, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

 


 

Posted by admin in personal reflection, 0 comments

An Open Letter to the Prowler At My Gate

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We were both surprised. Me—driving fast, fifteen minutes late for my yoga class. You– at my gate with your bag over your shoulder, expecting an empty house.

I have to hand it to you though. You were smooth. As I rolled down my window, preparing an icy, “May I help you?” you were ready with an offensive move.

“Excuse me, ma’am” in a voice as smooth as butter, “do you have a light?”

“No,” I spluttered, and drove off.

 

In the time it took to get to the end of the long driveway and drive back home, you were gone. My German shepherd was panting. My mini dachshund was barking frantically, his snout quivering over the side of the canyon, where you’d undoubtedly fled.

 

The sheriff told me you’d been casing the house, noting my schedule. He said crime was way up, mostly due to prisoners being released from the county jail because of over-crowding.

 

You didn’t look like a recently released prisoner, with your tidy dark clothes, your well-tended appearance.  Neither did you seem like a homeless person, not desperate, lost or despairing. In fact, you seemed to have it all together.

 

Which is what made me feel calm later. Surely such an intentional person would henceforth decide to leave my house alone—with its large German shepherd and gate. Surely it is my neighbors in this small canyon neighborhood, the ones without gates or dogs, who have the most to fear from you.

 

What I really want to say though is that our brief encounter brought me a gift. And I didn’t realize it until this morning, almost three weeks later.

 

I’ve been wondering why my heart is broken, why I can’t shake off the news. Why pictures of men, women and children herded up by Isis haunt my thoughts. Why photos of the exploded airplane in the Ukraine and the deadly rockets in Gaza settle like a gray fog in my chest. And this morning I realized why.

 

When you appeared outside my gate, my sense of security cracked. I felt vulnerable.  For the first time, I knew someone had been watching me as a predator observes it prey. You were waiting to take something from me.  And though I am well protected and realistically quite safe, I felt the anxiety of being the focus of another’s targeted desire.

 

And the ordinary people of the Middle East, the Ukraine, the Gaza strip– they are completely caught in the maelstrom of others’ violent desires. Unlike me, they have no defenses. Unlike me, they are not protected. They are not safe.  They are helpless as the ruthless advance their aims.

 

So your unwelcome appearance at my gate cracked me open to a deeper level of awareness, and I thank  you. I trust that you will not return.  I hope my deepened compassion abides.

 


 

 

Boyd, Iron Fence and Gate, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Posted by admin in Current Events, spirituality, 2 comments

The Not-So-Near Death of A Mini Dachshund and Events in Ferguson

R-20110118-0006.jpgLast week I was anxious and sad. Although I kept going with ordinary life, I feared our old dog was dying. Mysterious yelps, sudden bulges, listlessness and clouded eyes reminded me of every dog I’ve had that died from cancer. I held off going to the vet, avoiding bad news. Finally when a tennis-ball-sized swelling appeared overnight, I took him in. The vet lanced the abscess, gave him antibiotics, and today he’s skittering around like a puppy.

 

I should have known better. I’ve worked for years on facing fear. But I’m taking the episode as another lesson in assumptions.  Because I assumed he was dying, I delayed going to the vet, causing him extra pain and jeopardizing his health. Assumptions cloud our judgment. They blind us to truth. They get in the way.

 

I’ve learned this lesson before. In addition to experiencing it in life, I was trained to notice assumptions during my spiritual direction internship program at Bread of Life. Walk down the ladder of inference, we were told repeatedly. Try to get to the level of concrete details.  Do this not only for yourself, but with your directees.

 

What did you notice? What did you see? What feelings did it trigger in you? What did you say or do in response? From this foundational level, grounded in observable experience, one can carefully create a safe container within which to search for truth.

 

As I’ve watched events unfold in Ferguson since the shooting of 18 year old Michael Brown, I’ve grieved for the absence of such a container. Many factors are at work in the tragedy being played out, but I believe the destruction has been magnified by the speed of people’s unconsidered responses.

 

The facts about what actually happened are unknown at this point. Conflicting stories are being told. Information is being released in small, disconnected bits.

 

Into this factual vacuum, emotion, assumption, judgment, and fear have rushed. Using strategic and partial bits of information, all sides have made pronouncements, presenting their points of view as if they were facts.

 

Around the country, on city streets and at kitchen tables, the violence continues, as we square off against each other, not even knowing, exactly, what we are fighting about.

 

Into this maelstrom stepped Captain Ron Johnson, now overseeing security in Ferguson.  Johnson, a commander in the Missouri Highway Patrol, grew up in the area. His first step was to walk with the protestors through the streets. “We are going to have a different approach and that approach is that we are in this together. I am here to protect and serve everybody.”

 

Johnson removed the heavy riot armour and SWAT trucks that had so enraged the citizens. He met with residents on the streets. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” he told a young man with a red neckerchief. “Just like you and me are doing.  We’re talking. We gotta start with me. And we gotta start with you. We’re gonna be alright. We’re going to continue to talk.”

 

Unfortunately, violence has continued to escalate in Ferguson.  Peaceful protests have turned violent. Riot armor has returned to the streets. A curfew has been imposed.  Looting continues. Last night the police command center was attacked. The governor has called out the National Guard.

 

On Sunday morning Captain Johnson attended Greater Grace Church and spoke to Mr. Brown’s family and the congregation. “My heart goes out to you, and I say that I’m sorry. We need to pray. We need to thank Michael for his life. And we need to thank him for all the changes he is going to make.”

 

I’m following Captain Johnson’s advice. I’m praying for the people of Ferguson, for Captain Johnson, and for all of us, praying that we will open our eyes, ears and hearts, listening for truth, listening for wisdom, listening for guidance about how to heal our brokenness and live in peace.


 

 

Burial, Walter Gramatte, 1914, Germany courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Posted by admin in community, Current Events, spirituality, 2 comments